The First Year - First Steps
So you’ve arrived in a new place to plant a church. What do you do on day one?
Doing What They Knew
Ian looks back on those first steps with a typically self-effacing attitude.
“I thought that we knew what we were doing, was aware we knew less than we thought we knew, and, looking back, hadn’t a clue.”
And yet, despite this, good things resulted. What did they actually do?
The team concentrated on what they knew how to do, what you might call the essentials.
They knew how to pray so they prayer walked and they prayed together.
They knew how to study the Bible and they did this together in a quite pointed and prayerful fashion, reading a gospel and asking the questions, “What is Jesus doing with his disciples. Why? What does he want a community of disciples to look like?” Ian recalls the lounge of the manse covered in flip chart paper, scrawled with thoughts and notes, divided up into different experiences the disciples had had and different teaching that Jesus had given them. What were the key things that Jesus wanted this community to be formed around? This was all boiled down, distilled, into the simple conviction that Jesus wanted us to love God with our heart, soul and mind and our neighbour as ourselves.
The team also knew how to be a small group and how to worship. They did this individually and together. Sarah recalls having ‘all the time in the world’, long mornings of prayer spent filling journals, listening to God, thinking of the future, worshipping.
Ian claims that they didn’t know how to disciple each other. They attempted to use what seemed fairly regimented Cell Church discipleship material but the results seems unsubstantial, the process mechanical. They tried to anticipate how they would disciple people if they came to faith …
But that presupposed that people would come to faith and they had no confidence in their ability to emulate the practices of well-known evangelists.
Engagement with the Community
On the other hand, Ian claims that they didn’t know how to engage with community. His diary recalls, however, how he met people in the community centre, how he began chaplaincy in the school, met people from the old congregation and tried to make contacts with the local doctor’s surgery. Ian conducted funerals and visited in the hospital. They met with the remnants of the old congregation. Gail switched her hairdresser, Sarah would later attend the parents and toddlers group at the community centre. Slowly they did get to know people.
Ian recalls an influential moment within a month of arriving. He was ordained on October 28th 1999. By the 13th December he was volunteering to serve lunch at the over 50s lunch in the community centre. There must have been 50 people having lunch. Amongst the servers were Ian and the local councillor. During the afternoon, Ian found himself playing Bingo deeply conscious of being a fish out of water, that he didn’t belong in this place and doubting how he could possibly bring the gospel to these people. He felt very middle class, very Christian, very ‘university’, very young.
The community hasn’t changed, the over 50s lunch still takes place, but Ian recognises, over ten years later, that he must have. He is still all the things he was before (if a little less young), but the community has now become his home. The sense of dislocation and vulnerability, the doubts over whether he would be accepted have now receded.
The key element that enabled this transition was not firstly cultural adaptation on Ian’s part. Most important was his acceptance of the welcome that people gave him. The gap was bridged not by him but by those to whom he was missioning.
One encounter in particular illustrates this. Through a seemingly chance encounter [Link], Ian came into contact with Neil and Gale Hay. Their lives were not conventionally significanct. They lived chaotically and their flat reflected this, a mess, ‘sticky’. They were alcoholics. And yet, Ian felt at home and comfortable with them. They welcomed him as family, and as such, taught him a lot.
Finally, he came to recognise and accept the public role he could play as a minister of the Church of Scotland, although coming to terms with this took some time. Soon after they arrived Ian was asked to contribute to a regular service in a local nursing home. From one perspective this would seem an obvious duty for a parish minister. Ian resisted the request, however, and received a dressing down from a colleague who learned of the refusal. He was anxious not to lose sight of the primary task that he had come to do, the nurturing of a new church. Later, the church that grew would come to be involved in the kind of ministry from which Ian had originally withdrawn himself.
There is much to reflect on in all of this. What is immediately striking is the vulnerability of the church planting team in those early days. A task like church planting, engaged in by a few, is highly vulnerable to disillusionment and doubt. Deep and rooted spirituality can be one way in which the core team can be protected from distraction and remain concentrated on the tasks ahead.
The significance of Sarah and Gail’s dedication and enjoyment of temporary withdrawal for prayer, study and worship should not be underestimated. Such models of spirituality can be contagious in their ability to remind the church of the reality of the spiritual nature of the world and of the task of church planting. Prayer is not an optional element of missiology, quite the opposite.
The times of worship together were, of course, also important but not just for mutual support. The conscious worship of God is always worthwhile in its own right. And while we might want to encapsulate the whole of our life and mission within our understanding of worship, these specific times oriented the group in the rest of its activities; they served to ‘give God his proper place’.
On a similar note, the group’s study of the Scriptures were not mere routine. While the results may not have looked radical, they were results that the team had arrived at first hand through direct and personal engagement with Christ’s words. This wasn’t a study that assumed the answer could simply be looked up.
One question that could be asked is whether the results of this study were foundational for the church or whether the study itself was, the ongoing process of encounter with Christ’s words. If Stockethill Church was to launch a new congregation, would the church planting team rely on the original team’s study and understanding or seek to identify themselves afresh through their own study?
There’s a striking and perhaps ironic contrast between the group's perception of themselves as inadequate in disciple making and what was actually happening. What was actually happening was that they were getting to know themselves and each other, their gifts. And, they were beginning to recognise some of the ‘baggage’, some of their assumptions about what church planting must be all about were being laid down. Some people looking in might have concluded they were doing nothing. According to the rigours of some discipleship schemes, they weren’t ‘growing’ correctly. In reality, though, they were forming ourselves into a community, what would prove to be the core of the new church. A key lesson: discipleship occurs in community.
There seems to be a lesson too in the way the group engaged with the community. No doubt they could have been more strategic and determined in their community engagement, but Ian is probably too hard on himself. The welcome they received from Neil and Gail was not from well regarded community gatekeepers, people of influence. And yet they did find access to a family and their friends. Experiences like this, which bring no money to the church and which fill up no membership role are no less important.
It’s worth pointing out as well how important community and family were proving to be. The church planting team would form into the nucleus of a new church, and the encounter with Neil and Gail was of being welcomed into a family. The new church, as it reached out and embraced and was embraced by others, was acting sacramentally, pointing to the kingdom of God.
One final point is worth considering. Was Ian right to stand apart from the opportunity to lead worship in the nursing home? We can’t go back and see all the issues as though we were really there. What seems clear however, is church planting if taken with proper seriousness is a huge task of body, mind and soul. Planters should not be left free from all responsibility, but they do need space to find their own way. The alternative is that the church becomes a mere duplicate of other churches known elsewhere, stamped without reflection on a unique community. They needed to find their own way, they needed – and this is not to assume anything we should not – to find God’s way.